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Japanese Zen Terminology

Glossary of Japanese Zen Terms

Bosatsu (菩薩)An awakened or enlightened being who renounces the 
experience of nirvana in order to remain with unenlightened beings and work 
for the liberation of all. The bodhisattva ideal is closely associated with 
Mahayana Buddhism.

Dokusan (独参) - A private interview between a student and a zen teacher or 

Jukai (受戒) - Taking the precepts, taking refuge in the precepts or taking up the 
way of the bodhisattva. A significant step marked by a ceremony. Jukai 
signifies a serious commitment to zen, to the precepts of Buddhism and to 
the salvation of all beings. Each student recites the ten precepts during the 
ceremony and explain to the assembly what each precept means to him or 
her personally.

Kenshō (見性) - An enlightenment or awakening experience. It is difficult to 
describe this experience. Kensho gives one a glimpse of one's own nature 
and the true nature of reality. 

Kōan (公案) - A zen paradox, question or episode from the past that defies logical 
explanation. Koans are sometimes thought of as zen riddles, but this is not 
entirely accurate since most riddles are intended to be solved through 
reason. A student undertaking koan work is meant rather to exhaust the use 
of reason and conceptual understanding; finally making an intuitive leap 
(see kensho). Koans were originally recorded and used by the Rinzai school 
of zen, but the old distinctions have become less important so that today 
some teachers closer to the Soto school have also used koans.

Kyosaku (警策) - Wake-up stick or encouragement stick. Used during long periods 
of zazen to strike practitioners on the back or on the part of the shoulders 
close to the neck. The kyosaku is not used for punishment, but to shake off 
sleepiness and relax tense muscles. 

Mondō (問答) - A short zen dialogue between master and student. Often historical 
and used for teaching purposes.

Mushin No Shin (無心の心) a Zen expression meaning the mind without mind 
and is also referred to as the state of "no-mindness". That is, a mind not fixed 
or occupied by thought or emotion and thus open to everything.

Ōryōki (応量器) - A kind of formal, ritualized eating. Silence is maintained except for 
the chanting of certain meal sutras. When done, the utensils and bowls are 
immediately washed with tea (while still at one's seat) and wrapped up 

Raihai (礼拝) - Deep bows or prostrations. 

Rinzai  (臨済宗) - One of the two main schools of zen still active in Japan, the other 
being Soto. Rinzai, originated in China and was the first school of zen to be 
brought to Japan. Rinzai places more emphasis on dokusan and koan work 
than the Soto tradition. A trend in North American does not consider the 
distinctions between the two schools very significant and teachers often 
quote masters from both schools or non-Japanese sources.

Rōhatsu (臘八)  - The day to commemorate the enlightenment of the Buddha, which 
traditionally is celebrated on the eighth of December. 

Rōshi (老師) - A venerated master of zen. A roshi can be a man or a woman, a 
monk or a layperson. Years of training and some degree of "enlightenment" 
are required before becoming a roshi is even considered. 

Samu (作務) - Work Practice. This is work done in a mindful and aware manner. 
Tasks should be carried out in silence, though speaking in hushed tones is 
permitted when clarification or further instructions are needed. Periods of 
samu are often part of a sesshin, though it can be performed during one's 
daily life. Samu is a form of meditation done while working.

Satori (悟り) - A deep state of meditation in which notions of duality, self and 
indeed all concepts drop away. Profound satori is very close to an 
enlightenment experience or kensho.

Sensei (先生) - A recognized teacher of zen. 

Sesshin (接心) - A silent retreat that involves many periods of zazen and also 
private interviews with a teacher. The duration of a sesshin is usually 3, 5 or 
7 days, though the length can vary.

Shashou - The position of the hands for kinhin and whenever moving about 
in the zendo. To form this position, first one hand should gently be made 
into a loose fist with the thumb held inside. The other hand is then wrapped 
around the fist with the thumb resting in the slight indentation at the top of 
the first hand. 

Shikantaza (只管打坐) - An intense form of zazen where no mental aids, such as 
counting breaths, are used. A state of great mental alertness is cultivated, 
but no concepts or objects of thought are fixed in the mind. Some consider 
shikantaza, which is strongly recommended in the Soto tradition, to be the 
highest form of zazen. Just sitting. Natural meditation.

Shoshin (初心) - is a concept in Zen Buddhism meaning "beginner's mind". 
It refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions 
when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, 
just as a beginner in that subject would. 

Sōtō (曹洞宗) - One of the two main schools of zen in Japan, the other being Rinzai. 
The tendency towards mistrust regarding words and concepts finds its 
greatest expression in the Soto school. There is less emphasis placed on 
dokusan and koan study in the Soto tradition and more emphasis placed on 

Teisho (提唱) - A talk by a zen teacher (a sensei or roshi). The talk is not a sermon 
or an academic lecture; it is more a presentation of insight than an 
exposition of factual knowledge. Attendees are allowed to sit in a relaxed 
posture and may quietly shift position to remain comfortable. Instead of 
peering intently at the teacher and concentrating on every word, some 
students will look at nothing in particular and just allow the words to wash 
over them; thereby placing less emphasis on concepts, yet trusting the 
value of the talk to sink in.

Tenzo (典座) - is a title given to the chef at a Buddhist monastery. 
The literal translation is 'Heavenly Monk'. The tenzo bears the responsibility 
of caring for the community's meals.

Hanamatsuri (花祭) - The celebration of the Buddha's birth.

Zazen (坐禅) - Seated still meditation, usually on a cushion on the floor.

Zazenkai (座禅会) - A single day devoted to meditation, usually done together with a group. 

Zen (禅) - Zen, or ch'an as it was called originally, is a branch of Mahayana 
Buddhism that first appeared in China in sixth and seventh centuries. From 
China zen moved to Japan, Korea and Vietnam.

    The word ch'an is a transliteration of the Sanskrit word dhyana, meaning 
concentration or meditation mind. While some schools of Buddhism 
emphasize elaborate cosmology, devotional practices, chants formulas and 
elaborate images and gestures, zen offers meditation (zazen) as the primary 
method of reaching enlightenment.

    A distinctive characteristic of zen is that the person of the Buddha is 
regarded with somewhat less reverence than in most other Buddhist traditions. 

Zen-dō (禅堂) - Zen room or hall. The room should be private, quiet and free from 
distractions. However, it's important to note that zen should be taken out 
into the real world as well and sometimes a little distraction is an effective 
reminder of that.